Does your organisation create rituals which generate participation and fellowship? Here’s why it should

By Jim James,

Founder EASTWEST PR and Host of the SPEAK|pr Podcast

Rituals are an important part of society and of corporate communications culture. They help in the communication of things that matter within the organisation. Rituals and communication have been in societies from the very beginning. There was a chap called James W. Carey, who looked at rituals and communication back in the 1940s. He wrote a seminal piece called A Cultural Approach to Communication, and he delineates communication into two main views. He calls them rituals and transmission communications. He defines the rituals as being a way that people try and share ideas and thoughts to encourage participation, association, and fellowship. There is a need within organizations to create rituals, and possibly virtual ones due to COVID, since events like weddings, birthday parties, and funerals are fundamental societal rituals that are being denied at the moment.

Communications  as culture

Carey also shared a view of communication which he called the transmission view, in which he talks about the dissemination of information as the primary goal. In the ritual, there’s a desire to create and share participation, association, and fellowship. But in the transmission view of communication, it’s the act of communication which is the primary goal. Carey quotes Marshall McLuhan, who was a Canadian philosopher often credited as being the originator of modern media studies, who said, “The medium is the message,” and the term ‘global village.’ He also predicted the World Wide Web as well as the impact of technology on communication. McLuhan wrote an article in 1962 called The Gutenberg Galaxy where he wrote about communication technology and the beginnings of electronic media, TV and radio, of course in those days. He explained how this affected what he called the cognitive organization. He was actually giving a foresight at the time into the implications for social organizations and societies as a result of new technologies. On Wikipedia, it says he wrote about the new technology extending one or more senses to a social world and how the new technologies would create experiences outside of oneself or with others, and that these new shared experiences would have an impact on culture. He throws this parallel to adding a new note to a musical vocabulary and from that being able to create a whole new melody. 

The view then was that if there is a new form of technology, it creates new types of senses, and that these new senses can alter culture, because they change how people experience events. They can change how people experience a ritual. However, the new technology has fundamentally changed the transmission of information, where if that was primary goal of communication, technology transforms that experience entirely. McLuhan was talking about how some things that before had appeared lucid may appear then opaque. What had been before a private exploration through reading, for instance, may have become a collective exploration. That may make it seem clearer, because other people are commenting or sharing it. In The Gutenberg Galaxy, McLuhan also said that humankind would move from individualism and fragmentation, like people going off and reading their own books, for example, to a collective identity with a tribal base. Seth Godin is usually given the credit for the idea of tribes, but McLuhan had already written back in the 60s about the tribal base, and he coined the term the ‘global village.’ 

In 1989, James Carey wrote a publication called Communications as Culture. This built on McLuhan’s assertion and views of the impact of technology on communication. The interesting thing is that there’s a symbolic production of reality, this idea that people can create reality through rituals and through communication, and that’s what happens when building societies and organizations. It creates that sense of belonging. There is an expression it by Marshall McLuhan that the one thing of which the fish is unaware of is water, the point being that people are creating a reality without even really being conscious of the fact that they’re doing that. Creating rituals in organizations sometimes happens unconsciously, but how often are people viewing communication as the simple transmission view, where the communication is the goal itself as opposed to the change in behavior? From a public relations point of view, this is of fundamental importance, because working on communicating for the sake of communicating as in the transmission view of communication will not create a sense of belonging and community or a change in behavior.

Photo from Emotional Detective

Rituals are a part of the messaging

It’s time to reflect on rituals created for staff, for partners, and for clients. In earlier times when society was less driven by the technologies and the pace of change and also now the remoteness due to COVID, people would celebrate and have a rite of passage for an event. Remembering the SPEAK|pr program and the three different audience groups (clients, staff, and partners) that are important for any organization to function, in the previous days, there would be annual get togethers or company outings. These are the rituals that led to what McLuhan would call a tribal base, where people have shared experiences. But more than just seeing communication as simply the transmission of information, there was a time perhaps where this tribal base was being brought together with a ritual communication, and that’s seen in churches and community organizations. As people are now living in the new normal of distributed organizations and they’re not coming together in the same way, how can rituals that hold the same importance or meaning be created? 

Human beings are driven to have some sense of purpose and meaning, but also to share that. There are moments in an organization’s growth or well-being when it’s appropriate to create rituals, because these become part of the cultural messaging. They become part of what can be shared through social media, what can be shared for recruitment, and what can be shared for customer engagement. How can one create rituals with PR and communications being more distributed in clusters or small tribes instead of all gathering in one place? Is is possible to write those rituals down or make videos of them and share them using platforms like Loom or Gather Voices? How does one ensure that the tribal element of communication or the ritual is codified and understood by everybody so there’s a common sense of purpose and a common sense of what’s important?

The moral of this story is that communication with technology is fundamentally transformed by the technology itself, but the human condition is not. The human condition means that people could be unaware that the technology is impacting communication, and the medium of communication fundamentally affects the message, so always be conscious of the role of communication. Is it simply to transmit information or is it to create engagement participation and collaboration? Great communications will create information alignment with the greater goal of organizational alignment and harmony around those core goals.

This article is based on a transcript from my Podcast SPEAK|pr, you can listen here.

Cover Photo from Freepik

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